What does this power do?

Uh oh.

Uh oh.

This is a role-playing post. Flee!

Editions of Champions were complicated in the 1980s. There were: Champions 1st edition (1980), including the first sourcebook called Stronghold; Champions 2nd edition (1982), including the first rules supplement called Champions II; and for which various rogues’ gallery and scenario sourcebooks begin; and Champions 3rd edition (1985), including the second rules supplement called Champions III, and many more rogues/scenarios sourcebooks, including the important one, Strike Force, which itself drew mainly on play using the 1st edition and playtest rules.

See how that’s tricky? The “II” and “III” are supplements, not edition numbers, but there is no “I” supplement. Also, the rules changes are substantial, so that’s five (5) rulebooks cross-talking at the table even without the various applications found in the sourcebooks. And as it happens, Champions III also featured its own little significant rules revision in the printings past the first, so which printing you had mattered a lot. (In case you’re interested, it concerned how many charges of a limited-use power you got for how many points, depending on whether it’s in a Multipower framework or not.)

All of this is prior to the major, major changes brought by 4th edition in 1989, for which no one in the original creative team was involved, and in its format and content, represents a lot of shifts in role-playing culture in the 1980s in generation and in publishing strategy. I’m not talking about that at all (yet).

This is what I used: Champs 3rd, Champs II, and Champs III, with judicious pruning of the supplements’ material. For instance, I disliked the power Damage Resistance, so disallowed it entirely, but I liked the essay on experience points, so I pointed it out to everyone as an important feature for our game. This sort of “tires-kicking” to produce a customized rules-and-concepts combination was typical for Champions tables at the time.

champsIIII want to talk about an interesting new power idea that was introduced in the second supplement, Champions III: the Variable Power Pool. It’s not even the teeniest bit broken and in fact, may be the best single powers-rule in the game. Authors of the later editions definitely appreciated and preserved its importance, so with any luck, what I’ll say here will be interesting to people who play those.

The collective 1st-3rd editions Champions is a misunderstood rules-set, either caricatured or simply disappeared down the gamer memory-hole, such that discussion only reaches back to the 4th edition, or the genericized Hero System, which also postdates 3rd edition Champions. Contrary to popular belief, these rules do not model everything. In 1985, the games that did that were DC Heroes and GURPS, and a couple of years later, in response to those, the Hero System, which postdates this Champions edition. The numerical point-buy system applied only to the characteristics (strength, stuff like that), to the powers, and to a very limited list of “skills” which acted like powers. Everything else, all the mundane skills, professional skills, wealth, life-style, social positioning of all kinds, is left to pure statement. “My character is a rich senator,” “my character is a homeless guy,” “my character is a photographer,” and any skills relevant to those things, are not quantified at all. (I’ll talk about the Disadvantages in another post; they don’t matter here.)

Keep that in mind – this Champions was not a “model the universe with points” game – as I get into the powers concept:

  • The hard-effect rules are built with points and fixed, like range and how many dice and stuff like that. They have generic names like Energy Blast or Forcewall, which only have strict mechanical meaning. (Armor, for instance, doesn’t have to mean a solid barrier; it might mean instantaneous healing or minor insubstantiality.)
  • The color, or “what it is,” is wide-open make-it-up, like radioactive vs. cosmic vs. super-serum or whatever. [This is a player thing mostly]
  • The special effects in terms of fictional consequences, like fire lighting something on fire or being snuffed out in a vacuum, are handled on the fly. [This is a GM thing mostly]

The boundary between any two of these is a bit fuzzy; in my opinion, the rules really sang only when all three were afforded equal respect at the table. There’s also an advantage/limitation system for when you did want the color to impact the hard-effect rules in a specific way – but it’s totally optional. For example, one guy’s armored suit could be designated as vulnerable to being taken away, and another guy’s armored suit could be not so designated – basically, the former could therefore cost less, but the latter would “just happen” never to be taken away. (Cue Ralph Mazza and Vincent Baker driving us all crazy again with “systemic constraint” vs. “fictional positioning” yap; shut up, you guys.)

(whew) OK, there are two core-book power frameworks. A framework lets you organize a few powers under a color description and get a cost break (this is a very general description). The two in the 1st-3rd edition core books were the Elemental Control and the Multipower. The Variable Power Pool was the third and as far as I know the last power framework, presented in Champs III, and it also depended on a healthy respect for the color component in order to work.

Here’s how it works: you set a size for your “point pool,” say 50 points, which is to say, the maximum effect it can support. Then you pay half that cost as well called the control cost, for a total in this case of 75 points. Now you can … wait for it … use any power description in the book you want, or combination thereof, as long as at any given point, the total effectiveness it or they have does not exceed 50 (or whatever the size was that you bought). Any point-cost reducing rules you apply to the pool, “doesn’t work at night” or whatever, only reduces the control cost, not the pool cost. The default construction also limits the immediate flexibility of the powers; if you want to have insta-any power, then the control cost is more expensive. Nothing ever reduces or increases the pool cost.

Are you fearing this is broken? “Oh no, you have every power!” Fortunately the point-construction nicely splits how much the power(s) can do, from how broad they are at any given moment. It’s brilliant because the whole “what ‘can’ it do” is simply removed from the point. Let me see if I can explain why. “Unbalances” and “ruins everything” are awful things, but they only happen when you forget the other two components, color and quantitative effectiveness. Treat the color as the hard constraint for proposition, treat the quantitative effectiveness as a hard constraint for execution, and then the special effects will bloom like dazzling whizbang cosmic nova poppies. “Oh no” becomes “Oh yes, oh boy,” and “more, more!”

The concept works most obviously and easily for in-fiction wide-open powers like the Scarlet Witch’s hexes. All you have to do is put a bit of excitement into the color of the power in use, and its oogly-boogly, ambiguous cross between mutant-whatsis and magggggic, and release the tacit cap off its effectiveness. It took an absurdly long time, but starting from little hexes which did things like make fixtures fall off shelves or fire markedly weak fizzy-pop bolts, slowly and incrementally, finally …

... necessarily means this.

… sorta might mean this.

They figured out that this ...

They figured out that this …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vari-Pool, as it was abbreviated in Champs culture, was especially well-developed for Champions in some detail in the excellent 3rd edition supplement Mystic Masters, and now that I think about it, the concept was probably first introduced to superhero role-playing in Marvel Super Heroes‘ incredible magic booklet in the basic set. Either of these is frankly playable as its own whole game.

webbingWith a little thought, more mundane but physically malleable powers work exactly the same way, especially with an emphasis on their range of application rather than their raw power. Here’s Spider-Man’s webbing during the Lee-Ditko run – it’s an endpage in an early issue showing all sorts of cool things he could do with it, not as a “limited to these things” list, but rather as the opposite: if he can do this with it, think of what else might crop up! Before the title was two years old, he was making swamp-shoes, air-pockets for staying under water, ping-pong paddles to whap the Torch’s fireballs back at him, and for special surrealism, fairly credible artificial bats (the animal).

Everyone’s nodding now, that’s great, I’m making sense, thanks. The webbing starts as a multi-use fluid, after all. But here’s the gut punch, at least from the fan/gamer’s POV: every power is a mini Vari-Pool. Yes, I’m talking about all of them. “Fire powers.” “Wolf powers.” “Wings.” Because I do superhero role-playing not to model superhero comics, but instead to make them in a different socio-physical medium. For me, the question is not, “What can I do,” but instead, “What will I do.”

In the comics, when a character is written such that he or she “can only” do X, Y, and Z, it’s not because he or she “can only” do those, but because that’s bad fucking writing. In role-playing, when rules and/or player use of rules results in a character who “can only” do X, Y, and Z, it’s bad design or incompetent play or both. Early Champions was excellent design because of the three points I listed, operating in tandem. Forgetting or not understanding it is not a “different style of play,” but the aforementioned incompetence.

The more familiar way to introduce this flexibility is with the experience point mechanics, which are effectively additive, or with a little imagination, clarify that the character can do this new thing because they could do it all along, just having happened not to until now. The Vari-Pool steps up this flexibility into play – and thus really is not a new power framework at all, but a different way to acknowledge and manage the creative variables that are already there.

“Hey Ron?” “Yeah?” “Why did you lead in with a Black Bolt illustration?” Because Black Bolt speaks in support of my point, and when he speaks, you better listen.

You know it's going to change up everything.

One pre-powers glare from this guy, and you know it’s going to change up everything.

What was so incredibly cool about Black Bolt? Simple: all three of those crucial Champions components were in place. We knew the color of his powers (“voice”), the quantitative effectiveness of it (“spectacular, terrifying”), and the wide-open possibilities of application. All his other features fed into this combination: his silence, his calm, the rarity of unleashing his powers, his potential ruthlessness, and his leadership. I acknowledge that the frightening scale of the power matters, but that by itself isn’t enough. The coolness is there, even better, the raw fun is there, regardless of the extent of the effectiveness. Again: the color, people! Villains who use “sound” are universally boring: they deafen you, they vibrate you, they shockwave you, and that’s it. But voice is different. You use voice for different things. It’s just sound anyway, but framed in a completely different way that opens up the idea, uh-oh, what the hell is he going to do with it now?

And right in tandem with that, if some effect X is simply not consistent with the color (voice), then Black Bolt doesn’t (“can’t”) do it. Constraint is maintained as a creative device, as a boundary the current creator is either working within or teasing. By employing the Vari-Pool rules, by definition the group accepts that the constraint is open to such teasing by the player of that character … just as in the comics, by the creators of the moment. The chance for crap decisions and outright stupid ideas about characters’ powers is real; so is the brilliant excitement of the great ideas and wonderful plot and character development.

That by the way is a lesson my fellow role-players seem reluctant to grasp: that good rules are not there to prevent bad play but to enable good play, and that sometimes, the decisions of the moment may not be all that great – just as in any art form, and as unfortunately obvious in a serial art form. That’s the fact, so suck it up. Your stupid rules-lists of powers-specifications won’t solve that any more than ‘Verse does for the comics.

I loved the Vari-Pool and still do. I even eventually built whole campaigns with it in mind, making the villains without this framework, but substantially superior to the heroes in raw power, so the only way heroes could do well against them was for the players to think flexibly with their powers concepts. Here’s what we did before I really had this figured out, but knew we were onto something:

  • In my long-running “Shield” game, Chris Funk played an alien-android hero named Zone (1988-89), who began as a “light brick” as the gaming phrase goes, but then acquired a very small, 10-point Multipower for funky alien-body effects. It was so much fun that we calculated how much it would cost to be a VPP, and then when he amassed enough experience points to make up the difference, we converted it into one. It stayed pretty small, and I don’t think that the pool ever exceeded 30 points; but it was truly delightful when Zone busted out some other “little alien-android thing” his body could do, especially playing it oblivious, as if anyone should know he could pop a penlight out of his temple or similar.
  • In my similarly long-running “Force Five” game, Pat Beatty played a Green Lantern powers-clone named Irie (1990-92), who began play with a substantial, 60-point Multipower with the usual array of Energy Blast, Forcewall, and Flight, and continued to rack points and slots (more powers) into it steadily. Eventually I remembered Zone and said – how about we make it a Vari-Pool? This time, instead of banking the points as they built up to cover the difference in cost, Pat kept using them to buy slots in the Multipower, so it was loaded with neat ideas already when it finally cost enough to equate to the Vari-Pool cost, at which point we simply switched it over to that definition.

This technique mapped nicely to the idea of beginning a character with some straightforward visual powers and, once he or she is established among everyone’s understanding, showing how flexible the initial powers really are. It’s what artists and writers do all the time.

But hey, if you’re into it from the start and rarin’ to go, why not from the start? Even more so, why not use it with an ostensibly very straightforward power? Any physical force or element. Any animal. Any thematic concept. Any adjective. Pay points up-front for a very few, bread-and-butter things that you want to be reliably present, and then a nice solid Vari-Pool defined by any of those “anys.” What can my character do? No! What will he or she do.

There are only a few, real, and understandable factors that contribute to a great superhero comics character, and this exact point is one of them.

Some links: A look back at 3rd edition Champions

Next: Explain the Legion to me

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on April 30, 2015, in Heroics, Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I always prefer a hero with a limited powerset who finds interesting ways to use them than a character with a broad array of abilities, or worse “magic”, which always manifests as 1) color coded power blasts and 2) whatever the hell the plot requires, and rarely anything interesting in between.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure I can properly respond to this without writing an entire essay myself, which is something we’ll have to save for the near future. 😉 But to provide an historical datum that may or may not be of interest (or relevance), the term “HERO System” and the concept that all the company’s games were linked by a common rules system was in place by at least September, 1984, as shown by the back cover text of the second printing of the JUSTICE, INC. boxed set. On the other hand, the ESPIONAGE boxed set, dated 1983, lacks this text. I haven’t trolled back through other books to look for other references, nor do I know how this date compares to the creation of other “universal” systems, but I felt it was worth noting.

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  3. As of this posting, +31 and eight (!) reshares at Google Plus, with tons of comments:https://plus.google.com/u/0/116781946626781923658/posts/QNLf6rxGQCd

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  4. This “any power, but with a _______” theme is pretty common throughout the Golden and Silver Ages. Superman has super-anything, including super-ventriloquism; Batman has Bat-Shark-Repellent, and so on on.

    It’s especially noticeable in Jack Kirby’s “New Gods.” I remember reading the series for the first time in 2001, not having been conditioned for this sort of thing, and trying for the life of me to figure out what people’s powers are. In issue #6, Lightray—who for several issues has merely flown around—lands on a lifeboat, and alchemically transforms it into into a techno-organic nuclear bomb. What?! I mean: sure, good story, but since when is that even remotely something Lightray can do? Since now, I guess, but he never does anything remotely like it again…

    The pinnacle is Mother Box, which I finally realized can do anything, like a cosmic Swiss Army knife. And again, the fictional signals for Mother Box are extremely abstract: it’s a grey cube that goes “ping ping ping,” and somehow that means it has telekinesis, illusions, emotion control, teleportation, and Highfather only knows what else. In a way, the very lack of fictional signalling makes it seem even more otherworldly.

    Yet there’s a downside to this approach to powers, too. Consider the “Mister Miracle” series. In every issue, Scott Free finds himself in yet another deathtrap, and the reader is supposedly kept in suspense wondering, “How will he free himself?” Well… it turns out Scott Free’s real power is escaping from deathtraps via gadgets no one has ever mentioned before, and will never mention again, and that he just happened to have on him without telling you. As an exercise in suspense, “Mister Miracle” fails because we have no idea what Scott cannot do, and thus for all intents and purposes he can do anything, so long as “anything” involves a deus-ex-machina solution to a deathtrap.

    So, to a very limited degree, I can sympathize with creators who want to define or cut back on what a particular power can do: it’s hard to create dramatic tension from physical challenges if the hero is functionally omnipotent. You either have to contrive a reason why she’s not omnipotent in this circumstance, or do a lot of hard work to create a string of compelling non-physical challenges in a mostly-visual medium.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a gorgeous prequel to my discussion of Kirby’s work in the 1970s.

      I confess I find it almost crazy to consider reading the New Gods and related titles with an eye toward “figuring out everyone’s powers.” But that doesn’t make you wrong, not by a long shot!

      To the point, there is such a tension between “we don’t know quite what he can do” and “hey wait that is a total asspull.” My own thinking along those lines for the Forever People was how in the world, or three worlds, this basically Scooby-Doo Van bunch of day-tripper hooky-players even had a Mother Box. As widgets, isn’t the MB kind of a big deal even for New Genesis people? And if not, then how come everyone doesn’t have one, in which case Darkseid can go pound sand?

      I’m pretty sure that resolving that tension in a given title and given character is another one of those primary creative variables about superheroes, or frankly, about fantasy/SF as a whole.

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  5. Interesting. I’ve found “look, new use of power!” moments in superhero comics to be MOSTLY “total asspull”. I generally dislike fiction that tailors what’s possible to what’s convenient, and I don’t see the need to get over that with supers, having found plenty of good superhero fiction that stays mostly on the “creative uses of what I already new the power could do” end of the spectrum.

    All those times where Spider-Man basically wins a fight by webbing an opponent’s eyes shut — these make all the times where he DOESN’T do that, and as a result gets his butt kicked into the writers’ desired level of peril, feel a bit too contrived for my taste. Maybe I’m just bitter from a few too many “we’ve written ourselves into a corner here, so let’s redefine Invisible Woman’s power again to get out of it” hackjobs.

    The power we genuinely don’t fully understand, and learn more about each time it’s used differently, never needing to undo or backtrack, seems relatively rare to me. When it does come up, usually in a character who’s new (and often new to their own power), I definitely enjoy it. Not reading many new supers these days, I probably get MORE of this enjoyment from “super I just created” roleplaying than I do from comic books.

    In my most recent superhero roleplay, starting from “what’s your character’s functional domain of supremacy?” and then working backward to “what power could give you that?” has been very satisfying. Lots of novel powers that we didn’t bring too many assumptions into — one guy can shapeshift his fat, one woman can locate anything, another one is simply at the heart of some Illuminati-style cabal, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • oberonthefool

      The “self discovery” part is always my favorite, whether it’s an origin story (but not if it’s the umpty jillionth version of the same origin story) or a redefinition story (rarer and rarely done that well, but fun when they work). Asspulls are bunk, but a legit extrapolation of existing powers can be super fun- except when the next writer forgets about or retcons it, which happens all the time.

      It’s not always about the powerz, either; for instance I really enjoyed Superior Spider-Man, which doesn’t change Spidey’s powerset, just his attitude and goals.

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  6. It was only as of the more recent post and I started archive crawling your blog that I noticed you linked me from here!

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